What Is Exorcism?

October 26, 2017

Most Americans would think of the award-winning 1973 supernatural horror film when they hear about an exorcist.

But according to the Roman Catholic Church, exorcism is not the stuff of Hollywood—it’s a real tool to be used in the battle against the powers of darkness. So much so that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has translated the church’s exorcism ritual from Latin into English for the first time.

Exorcisms and Related Supplications is only available to bishops, although priests who perform exorcisms—as well as other clergy and theological scholars—can get a copy if they have a bishop’s permission. The USCCB has also translated a separate booklet—titled Prayers Against the Powers of Darkness —that ordinary American Catholics can use to ward off demons.

What is an exorcism?

At its simplest, exorcism is a rite or prayer performed by a member of the clergy to overcome the power of demons or the devil. But the Catholic Church recognizes several different types of exorcism—and all baptized Catholics will have undergone at least one form of exorcism in their lives:

Simple exorcism—this is a rite performed on someone about to be baptized or initiated into the Catholic Church. It is performed to rid the person of original sin—Catholics believe that humanity is in a fallen state due to Adam and Eve disobeying God, and that all people require grace to be cleansed of their original tendency towards sin.

Major exorcism—this is what most people think of as an exorcism. It is performed by a bishop or a priest who has been designated an exorcist. It is directed towards “the expulsion of demons” or “the liberation from demonic possession.”

Who can perform an exorcism?

According to the Catholic Church, only bishops or priests who have been commissioned by bishops as exorcists can undertake a major exorcism. Some priests are appointed as exorcists for a particular case, while some are regular exorcists who perform the rituals on a frequent basis.

How common are exorcisms?

The demand for exorcisms appears to be rising; the number of exorcists in the United States rose from 12 to 50 over the past decade, the Telegraph reported in 2016. Nevertheless, the vast majority of purported cases of exorcisms are not considered to be full demonic possessions by the Church. Father Vincent Lampert, a veteran exorcist and priest in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told the Telegraph that of every 5,000 exorcism requests he receives, only one is believed to be a case of full demonic possession.

What happens at an exorcism?

Before a possessed person is even referred to an exorcist, they should undergo a “thorough examination including medical, psychological and psychiatric testing” according to guidelines from the USCCB’s Council of Divine Worship. According to Michael Cuneo’s 2001 book American Exorcism, there are around a dozen psychiatrists in the United States who evaluate people claiming to be possessed on behalf of the Catholic Church.

The actual rite of exorcism involves prayers in which the priest demands that the demon(s) leave the possessed person’s body. Those present are sprinkled with holy water and the priest makes the sign of the cross on the possessed person’s forehead, as well as laying his hands on them.

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